Saturday, July 23, 2016


There is no happy guilt just sinful lust


This is a war story that defies and defiles love. We must keep in mind we are just after the Second World War, just out of it, and the steady reference to Jesus Christ, to the Cross, to his death to save us makes the story of Lucretia a real annunciation that man’s curse cannot be redeemed. Jesus is compensation and not possible change. It is salvation that has to be brought back over and over again since man will always commit sins, a redemption that can only come after the crime. This somber Christian parabolic lesson is present from beginning to end and animates the whole tale.

The story is a simple as simple can be. Two generals, Junius and Collatinus, and one Prince, Tarquinius, are at war against the Greeks somewhere and they boast, some evening in camp when drinking and waiting for a battle to come some day, about women and how the wives of many generals were found unfaithful when checked upon, except Lucretia, Collatinus’ wife. According to Tarquinius women are the only end in life for him and for both Junius and Tarquinius all women are by nature unchaste. Tarquinius though boasts he can prove Lucretia is chaste and Junius dares him on that objective, both meaning Lucretia will be taken, for Junius because that’s the nature of all women and for Tarquinius because he is a hypocrite when asserting Lucretia is chaste: his objective is to take her. Sure enough Tarquinius takes a horse, gallops to Rome, visits late at night Lucretia’s home and spends the night there. During the night he takes Lucretia and rides her just the same utilitarian           n way as a horse, and then he goes back to his horse and gallops back to camp before daybreak. Strangely enough Junius tells Collatinus he has to check upon Lucretia because he had heard a horse galloping away on the previous night and galloping back in very early in the morning. When Collatinus arrives at Lucretia’s home, it is too late and Lucretia kills herself in front of her husband out of shame.

But the libretto’s author and Benjamin Britten turn this simple and sad story into a remarkably meaningful tale about man and his fate, consequently about woman and her fate.

First the story is built on two groups of people. On one hand three men, two generals and one prince. Note the three men are connected by their military service. On the other hand three women, Lucretia, her nurse Bianca and her maid Lucia. Note the three women are connected to light and purity by their names. Lucia is a name derived from “lux” meaning light. Bianca is a name derived from “bianco” meaning white, and Lucretia often associated to the Latin word “lucrum” meaning profit is parallel to Lucia and hence the old Celtic god of light, Lugh, Lug or Lu’ch seems more pregnant to qualify the lady. Note though this very same Celtic root, which is also an Indo-European root, the same as in the Latin word “lux” is also behind Lucifer. Lucretia thus and her two servants create an environment of light that is also ambiguous in some ways with connection to “lucrum” (profit), to “Lucifer” (the light-resplendent side of Satan), and also to lust and an old Germanic root meaning desire. In this triad of women we have some ambiguous meaning that makes them in a way the victims of a curse: the curse of being light as well as desire, purity as well as profit.

On the other hand the triad of men are just military people by profession or by birth and their superiority as men is their absolute dimension as individuals who just take what they can take for the sole reason they can take it, and that applies to women for two of them, though the third one remains silent on the subject more than non-committed: he is married, his wife is faithful and he is faithful to his wife.

These two triads are opposed in directions, one looking to the other, one penetrating the other and the other receiving the first one. That is the famous star of David and thus a Jewish symbol that was anachronistic in Lucretia’s time in ancient Rome, but is pregnant in modern times in 1946.

These two triads are amplified by twp choruses in the old Greek meaning, each one reduced to one person who gives some reflection on what is happening. One is male and the other one is female. Thus we have two groups of four, four men and four women, and the heavy reference to Christ makes us think of the crucifixion of course but the number eight the two groups could compose is not significant here since there is no second coming or resurrection in the fateful and tragic story we are dealing with. The two choruses are thus the voice of the curse of men and women, of humanity. This curse is perfectly expressed in the second interlude:

“Female Chorus and Male Chorus
Here, in this scene, you see
virtue assailed by sin with strength triumphing.
All this is endless sorrow and pain for Him.

Nothing impure survives,
all passion perishes.
Virtue has only one desire:
to let its blood flow back
into the wounds of Christ.

She, whom the world denies,
Maria, Mother of God,
help us to lift this sin
which is our nature
and is the Cross to Him.

She, whom the world denies,
Mary, most chaste and pure,
help us to find your love,
which is His spirit,
flowing to us from Him.”

I have set in bold font the various references to Jesus and we are speaking of the wounds and the cross, hence the Passion of Christ. The nature of man is to sin and it is asserted twice and associated to the only chaste and pure woman in this context, Mary or Maria, the Holy Virgin. But what is important is to see the movements between sinful man begging for redemption and Christ.

The first movement is from man to Christ: “this sin . . . is the cross to Him.” The sin of man is thus imposed onto Christ in the form of the Cross. Christ is crucified because of, by and even with man’s sins. The second movement is from Christ to us: “His spirit, flowing to us from Him.” That makes the situation incredibly cynical. Man sins, it is his nature. That puts Christ on the cross and when he dies there his spirit comes down to us and redeems us. You have the two dimensions of the two cups of the star of David, the cup of truth-receiving man and the cup of light-giving God. But the movement is doubled up cynically: the cup of the cross-giving sins of man to the cup of Passion-receiving Christ. Christ becomes here the insurance against our sins, the guarantee we will not pay for our sins.

Then when fate is that brutal and inescapable, there is only one solution for the passive sinner who was not willing but who was the victim of the sin of someone else: do the same thing as Jesus, accept to die for that sin, for that other person’s sin imposed onto her, since the passive sinner is Lucretia. And Lucretia has to die. The light has to be dimmed. The Epilogue of the opera is absolutely irreversible in what I have just said. The opera does not try to correct anything, to convince anyone. It is just the resonance-box of human fate:

“Male and Female Chorus
Now, with worn words and these brief notes
we try to harness song to human tragedy.”

There is another element to point out in this opera: it is the heavy use of ternary elements in words, meaning and music, with a deep sense of fate and destiny carried by some quaternary elements like the four knocks (alluding to a famous set of four notes in Beethoven’s fifth symphony) on Lucretia’s door on that damned evening, but it is also the regular use of a pentacle to tell us doom is all powerful. The five syllables of “Good night, Your Highness” repeated three times and then an instant later a fourth time, that echo the five syllables of “Good night, Lucretia” repeated twice, and to make the balance even that makes six instances of these salutations, though not three and three. It is such intertwined elements and rhythms carried by words that make some passages so powerful that we could consider that then Benjamin Britten reaches a moment of perfect and exquisite suffering in beauty and love. Let me give one example in the final scene when Lucretia confronts Collatinus.

To love, as we loved,
was to be never but as moiety.
To love, as we loved,
was to die, daily with anxiety.

Lucretia, Collatinus
To love, as we loved,
was to live on the edge of tragedy.

Now no sea is deep enough
to drown my shame.
Now no earth is heavy enough
to hide my shame.
Now no sun is strong enough
to lift this shadow.
Now no night is dark enough
to hide this shadow.
Dear heart, look into my eyes.
Can you not see the shadow?

In your eyes I see only the image of eternity
and a tear which has no shadow.

A first star of David with three five-syllable (pentacle) “to love as we loved” echoing the three rich rhyming words “moiety,” “anxiety” and “tragedy.” The three words have three syllables and then it becomes the nine of the beast, and beast it is since blood is going to be shed.

Then two sets of six intertwined with variations: “now no sea – now no earth – now no sun – now no night – into my eyes – in your eyes,” hence four and two, and “shame – shame – shadow – shadow – shadow – shadow,” hence two and four.

Such text carried by the most expressive and strong music is there the acme of that expression of fate, destiny, doom. We are in pure tragedy but a tragedy that is cosmic, at the level of the human species itself. Man can only bring desolation and death, just like he has five fingers on each hand and can cross them or twist them in a way or another; for love with two people holding hands, for suffering in a dramatic event, for prayer to God, Mary or Jesus to get some salvation, or even for death by holding the dagger that will put an end to the shame and the pain.

But there is another attraction in this story for Benjamin Britten. It is the woman and the man who love each other in total unison, in total osmosis, in total faithfulness who are taken as victims of society, who are pointed out as inacceptable because different, because beyond sin and crime. They are the foreigners, the strangers in this society and as such are bullied and victimized if not openly rejected, therefore causing their death. Collatinus is rejected because his wife is faithful and Lucretia is rejected because she is a faithful wife.

Yet, but only on the side, Benjamin Britten insists a couple of times on the political situation in Rome where an Etruscan foreigner is the king of the city that is not Etruscan as such, but is Roman. We thus have a city occupied by some foreigners or strangers and that alludes to WW2 as well as to Palestine in Jesus’ time. Lucretia is sacrificed by the Etruscan just like Jesus was sacrificed by the Romans. This gives the story a tremendous historical value. The Male Chorus has it right: the victims do not need any material existence because love lives in their very principle of victimized victims, in their deeper essence of their abstract definition as Jews killed by the Nazis or as one Jew killed by the Romans, in the emotion and the experience that survives their death and it is this death that gives love its eternal value and force.

Male Chorus
They have no need
of life to live,
they have no need
of lips to love,
they have no need
of death to die.

In their love, all's dissolved.
In their love, all's resolved.
Oh, what is there but love?
Love is the whole.
It is all!

First a star of David with three “they have no need” and three “of life to live – of lips to love – of death to die.” Each element of the two triads have four syllables and thus they build three symbolical apocalypses, second comings, resurrections, which makes the triad “live – love – die” the only way to eternity. And sure enough the couplet of two repeated lines of three plus three syllables amplifies this star of David that then moves to a different rhythm (2 + 2 + 2 = 6) in “Oh, what / is there / but love?” thus bringing the total to eighteen syllables (the beast 9 twice, or simply the beast in the Book of Revelation 666). And that comes then to the whole resolution of the Holy Week, the Passion with four syllables and then three, hence seven: “Love is the whole. / It is all.”

The Jews, and many others, millions altogether were killed and incinerated in many death camps and yet they will always survive in our memory with love and even passion, the passion for the victims of the worst ostracization in the 20th century. This opera is a major work by Benjamin Britten but it is also a major classic from the 20th century and more precisely from the guilt in love for and guilt in memory of the victims we could not protect or save in the period from 1933 to 1945. Yes our love for these victims is all that survives this dark period of treachery and viciousness, and along with our love the victims themselves.


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